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Advocates call for adoption of universal design principles to ensure easy conversion of residential units for people with disabilities

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For Kate Chung, Canada’s shortage of accessible housing hits close to home. When she and her husband were recovering from knee and hip replacement surgeries and began using mobility aids long-term, their apartment was no longer accessible to them. Not wanting to enter long-term care, the two realized that the only choice was to renovate.

They took out the bathtub to make room for a shower, which would take up less space, purchased a stackable washer and dryer to give them more room, and took out the linen closet. The grand total? More than $15,000.

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“It doesn’t make economic sense to be building housing that is not accessible,” Chung said, adding that the building that they live in is old, and widening the doorways to accommodate mobility devices was not feasible.

Chung’s situation is not unique.

While Canada is facing a worsening housing crisis — the average home now costs $659,395, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association, up just over seven per cent from last year — the challenges for those with health issues or disabilities are even bigger.

Whether it’s the height of counters, accessing the bathtub, or a bump to get into the shower, the impediments to accessibility range far beyond the width of a doorway and stairs.

Currently, the Ontario Building Code does not contain anything regarding accessibility for personal residences. While public spaces are required to be accessible, equipped with grab bars in bathrooms and ramps to get through doorways, houses and apartments are not.

Even a looming Jan. 1, 2025 deadline for compliance with the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) makes no requirement for accessible housing.

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Though there are few units built specifically for people with disabilities, accessible housing activists say one solution is for personal residences and buildings to be built using the principle of universal design, creating spaces that can easily be modified such that anybody can live in them.

It doesn’t make economic sense to be building housing that is not accessible

Kate Chung

In 2016, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation published an accessibility report that found most accessibility accommodations could be installed for less than $500 — provided the residence had been designed with accessibility in mind from inception. In addition, 57 per cent of the accommodations could be installed at no additional cost.

A 2023 report also emphasized the importance of universal design, with specific focus on elements that can be adapted for aging seniors.

“If you build housing according to universal design, anybody of any age or ability can get in, and can stay there if they have an illness or accident,” Chung said, adding that changing features should be easy, depending on a resident’s needs.

Chung hears stories on a daily basis from people who cannot access or afford the accessibility accommodations that need to be made to their homes. The stories, she says, are important and part of the reason that she is passionate about accessible housing. The other reason is more personal.

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A Statistics Canada report released in Dec. 2023 said that in 2022, 27 per cent of Canadians lived with a disability. That number, Chung said, is underreported.

“One of the things that we’re concerned about in statistics is that seniors, speaking as a senior myself, we tend to not declare that we have a disability,” Chung said, adding that in the last census she nearly did not declare her disability out of a sense of shame that her body wasn’t the same as it had been in her twenties.

Mira Miller, an occupational therapist who works with people who have acquired disabilities, said the housing crisis has created a unique challenge for those looking for accessible spaces.

“People with disabilities have lower incomes because they can’t work to the same extent or at all. So, they end up often in substandard housing because it’s one of the only places that they can afford to live,” she said, adding that these environments may pose safety risks as well, depending on the disability.

In her view, housing is an issue of independence and autonomy — the more a person is able to do for themselves, the more confident they become.

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“The really important thing about housing is people need to understand the implications that it has for everything else,” Miller said. “It has such a huge impact on people’s independence and quality of life and self-esteem. Because the more people can do for themselves, the more productive they are. And that really is dictated by their environment.”

Chung echoed the sentiment.

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“Disability can happen to anybody, so it’s important for spaces to be designed so people can have their independence, regardless of their needs.”

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